Carry Enough Gun: Some Thoughts on Plainclothes and Off-Duty Carry


When beginning a law enforcement career, one of the biggest lifestyle adjustments remains adapting to the gun. 

The badge and the uniform do indeed identify you as a law enforcement officer, but the gun, and the tremendous responsibility which comes with it, is what really sets you apart. That very visible pistol in the duty holster is indeed the symbol of authority.

All law enforcement officers – both uniformed patrol, as well as plainclothes investigators – carry a firearm while on duty. The majority continue to pack heat while on their own time. Four decades ago, I made a decision to carry a firearm whenever I was legally authorized to do so. Quite simply, unless you have a crystal ball, there is no predicting when danger might arrive and rolling the dice did not appeal to me. The fact that you are off duty does not make you immune to danger and going unarmed just makes you another potential victim.

Back in the day, medium to large frame revolvers were the service weapon of choice for uniformed patrol, while short barrel snubs were favored by detectives, as well as for all off-duty carry. My outfit pretty much fell in line and all of our officers were issued a four inch service revolver, as well as a snub for off-duty or backup carry. If you were so inclined, you could purchase your own plainclothes revolver, as long as it was a steel frame Colt® or Smith & Wesson® in .38 Special or .357 Magnum. My choice was a S&W Model 19 Combat Magnum with a 2½ inch barrel which served me well for years.

Back in the 1980s, the winds began to shift and many departments switched from revolvers to autopistols for duty carry. It was inevitable that the same trend would carry over to the handguns used for more discreet carry and small pistols began to encroach on the turf formally dominated by snub revolvers.

Reality Check

Once they got over the cool factor, new coppers quickly discovered that carrying a handgun full time is a major inconvenience. Depending on the clothing worn, the time of year or the social setting, discreetly hiding a handgun can be a challenge. Friends and family members will often question your sanity taking a gun everywhere you go. As a result, some officers have come to the conclusion that packing a gun is too much of a bother and simply don’t do it. Others only carry a gun on occasions when they feel there is a higher probability of danger. Yet another fix is to carry one of the really tiny, small caliber guns which can easily be hidden somewhere on the body.

To get a better handle on this misguided logic, let’s consider a few possibilities. For me, having no gun at all is a nonstarter. When confronted with danger, you have no choice but to take action. This also applies to “sometimes carry.” Danger tends to come when we least expect it. 

Any cop with more than a year or two of time on the job will tell you that some of his (or her) more exciting moments occurred while performing routine tasks in “safe neighborhoods.” 

Have you ever had to take enforcement action off duty? In some situations, it’s best to act as a trained observer, but, in others, our DNA kicks in and we have no alternative but to take action. Are you comfortable doing this with an inferior gun or no gun at all?

Making an Educated Choice

Comfort and convenience often guide our decision making. But, if you carry a pistol which is too small, unsatisfactory performance is pretty much a guarantee. Consider for a moment that you might actually have to use the firearm to stop a determined adversary who represents an imminent threat of death to you or others. Of course, any handgun can prove lethal, but our goal is to stop a threat as quickly as possible. This is best achieved with service caliber cartridges; handguns chambered for the 9mm or .38 Special are a good place to begin. Small caliber handguns may fill a useful role as last ditch backups, but there are better tools available.

Really small handguns are difficult to shoot to a high standard. Short grip frames, along with an abbreviated sighting plane, play havoc with marksmanship potential, particularly when shooting at speed. Fortunately, the new crop of subcompact and single stack service caliber pistols solve those problems. While we may not be able to perform to the same standard as with our full-size service pistol, downrange performance is light-years beyond the pocket pistols of old. Officers in my outfit run a mix of small GLOCK®s, plus a few SIG SAUER® 365s and S&W M&P® Shield pistols and the results speak for themselves. Excellent choices are also available from Beretta, Kahr Arms and Springfield Armory®.

Is a snub revolver still a viable alternative? I would give that a qualified “yes.” Snubs are easy to shoot, but difficult to shoot well, particularly for officers who cut their teeth on autopistols. However, if you’re willing to put in the time, a small revolver with a two or three inch barrel is a great companion. I’ll confess to not being a fan of the small frame snubs in .357 Magnum which very few people can shoot well. In .38 Special, these same revolvers still hold an advantage to pistols chambered for .380 ACP.

As much of a sentimental attachment I might have for revolvers, I recognize it’s a square gun world and most cops are better served with an autopistol. No matter what technology you choose, the bottom line remains your ability to quickly make decisive hits on one or more threats.

Terminal Performance

Over the last 30 years, the performance of handgun ammunition has taken a quantum leap. In the aftermath of the 1986 Dade County shootout, the FBI established standards for the performance of law enforcement ammunition. Test rounds were fired into 10% ordnance gelatin covered with barriers common in police action shootings and qualities such as penetration and expansion were noted. While we may not agree with every aspect of the FBI protocol, it did raise the bar relative to the performance of ammunition selected for law enforcement use.

More recently, the FBI has stepped back from favoring larger calibers, such as the .45 ACP, .40 S&W and 10mm, and has gotten behind the worldwide standard 9mm. They reasoned that, although the big bores might hold a slight advantage, improvements in bullet design and the fact that shooters of average ability can shoot the light kicking 9mm significantly better has blurred the lines. What’s the bottom line? Most of the small hideout pistols are chambered for 9mm, but, if you prefer .40 S&W or .45 ACP, they’re out there as well. If you can shoot it well and effectively conceal it, by all means, have at it.

What about .38 Special? The ancient .38 Special was developed around the same time as the 9mm and it, too, has been given a performance boost. Major manufacturers such as Federal®, Remington®, Speer®, and Winchester® are all turning out premium quality ammunition which will reliably expand from the short barrel of a .38 Special snub.

Many experts consider the .380 ACP cartridge to be the ground floor for personal defense. There are, indeed, some very handy pistols chambered for this cartridge – many no larger than old school .25 ACPs, but we can do much better. For a slight penalty in size, one can upgrade to a 9mm which generates significantly more muzzle energy. True, there have been improvements in .380 ACP performance, but it will always be a weak sister to 9mm.

Light, small pistols will buck in the hand more and exhibit greater muzzle flip. In poor light, they may yield more muzzle flash, depending on the ammunition utilized, but they are quite manageable. Ultimately, your preferred handgun should strike a balance between shootability and power in a package you can effectively conceal.


This is truly the golden era of holsters as many well-thought-out designs are available in every possible configuration. A true concealment holster will enable the wearer to effectively hide the handgun in a position where it can be effectively brought into play. This is a quality often lost on many off-the-rack holsters. Other requirements include durability, security, comfort, and the capability for a one-handed return. Many of us have discovered that having more than one style of holster for our preferred carry piece is the way to go. This will give you the ability to better adapt to the seasons and the clothing you wear.

A few caveats about holster selection are in order. With the right holster, one can conceal even a service-size gun under light clothing. On the downside, a poor design will give you up – even when carrying a small handgun. Some holsters might seem like a good idea at the time of purchase, but turn out to be dismal failures. I suppose this is unavoidable as our body types can be very different and what works for one person may not work for the next. Don’t be discouraged if your first effort comes up short. Quality holsters will cost more than a few bucks, but this is no place to cut corners. Buy cheap – buy twice!

Three seasons of the year, my concealed carry pistol rides in an Outside-the-WaistBand (OWB) rig which is effectively concealed from view. I’m a fairly big guy and my wardrobe can be best described as casual. For me, it’s not especially difficult to keep even a fair-size pistol out of view or prevent it from printing through a covering garment. Individuals who have to wear different attire may not have the same leeway.

A very accessible, yet discreet, way of carrying a handgun is the Inside-the-WaistBand (IWB) holster. As long as you can cover the grip of the pistol with a garment, you’re in business. Again, this solution may not work for everyone, but it remains a very good choice.

Some of my associates have moved their handgun forward of the hip and utilize what has become known as Appendix Inside-the-WaistBand (AIWB) carry. It is a viable choice, but it just doesn’t work for me. It does indeed hide the gun even better and makes for a very fast draw. By all means, check it out.

Other carry modes, such as shoulder, ankle and pocket carry, are alternatives, but might be best categorized as “sometimes solutions” rather than an ideal choice. In certain situations, they may be the only way to go. When dressed in cargo shorts, I’ve been able to carry a GLOCK 26 in a scabbard designed by Pocket Concealment Systems without tipping my hand. It won’t work with a pair of jeans, but it remains a good choice in the summer weather when T-shirts and shorts are the order of the day.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention bags. There are all sorts of bags and pouches which can be utilized to carry a handgun which, in this day and age, don’t attract a lot of attention. Avoid bags which look a little too “gunny.” Instead, look for one of those pouches in which we harbor all those electronic devices we can’t live without.

Complete the Package

A sturdy belt designed for carrying a holstered handgun goes a long way in keeping you under the radar. Off-the-rack department store belts will give you up in the blink of an eye – even when carrying a small pistol or revolver. One of the best places to start your search is the various holster manufacturers who turn out purpose-designed gun belts. A properly designed gun belt will bring the gun in tight to the body, aid concealment and stabilize the pistol for a more efficient draw stroke. Don’t cut corners on belts.

Do you carry extra ammunition? Should you find yourself in an off-duty situation, don’t expect the cavalry to roll up in a moment’s notice. True, most situations are resolved with few shots fired, but you just may be the exception to the rule. Either way, I wouldn’t feel especially comfortable in a hostile environment with a half loaded gun. Carry at least one reload for your handgun and preferably more for a low capacity revolver.

Carrying magazines on the belt can present problems when you want to go low profile. A less visible alternative remains pocket carry and a few firms are turning out pouches for that purpose. One of the best examples I’ve come across are the magazine pouches from Extra Carry which retain the magazine in a fitted compartment. A clip similar to that found on many folding knives secures the pouch to the top of the pocket for quick withdraw. Magazines are kept free of pocket debris and are instantly available for an efficient reload.

Don’t Neglect the Software

I’m no different than the next guy and I often devote a disproportionate part of my practice time to things I’m already good at. Of course, what we really need to work on are the things we don’t do well.

Many cops have an inflated idea as to their abilities based on their performance on the qualification course. They reason that, since they have no problem “qualifying” with their preferred concealed carry piece, they are well prepared for any emergency out in the real world. The truth of the matter is that most qualification courses test only basic marksmanship skills, typically in very generous time frames.

To get a better handle on your true abilities, work that hideout gun in some more realistic scenarios which include movement, draw from concealment, poor light, and more than one threat. You may indeed come to the conclusion as I did that more hard work and/or a more decisive carry gun is in order.

A New High Capacity Leader

In late September 2019, Springfield Armory introduced the Hellcat which is now the highest capacity micro compact 9mm currently available. Ideal for plainclothes and off-duty carry, this pistol touts a capacity of 11+1 with its flush-fitting magazine (which comes with a pinky extension) and 13+1 with its extended mag (both are included).

The three inch barreled pistol measures one inch wide and weighs 18.3 ounces empty. The overall length measures six inches, along with a height of only four inches.

As a result of the increasing popularity of optics-ready carry guns, the Hellcat is also offered in an OSP (Optical Sight Pistol) configuration with a milled slide to accept the smallest popular micro red dots on the market.

Both models feature the U-Dot sight system which comprises a tritium and luminescent front sight paired with a tactical rack U-notch rear. This setup enables rapid target acquisition within a wide range of lighting conditions, and the direct mount capability of the OSP allows for co-witnessing of the U-Dot sights with a red dot.

The frame features Adaptive Grip Texture, a pressure activated texture featuring a pattern of staggered pyramid shapes. The taller pyramids have a flattened top to ensure comfort in the waistband, while the shorter pyramids come to a point and are engaged when the pistol is firmly gripped.

A full-length guide rod and dual active recoil spring offers a smooth recoil impulse and it also features a standoff device at the muzzle which allows the pistol to fire when pressed against a target.

Stay tuned for a test and evaluation feature article of the Hellcat coming up in the next issue of P&SN.

Captain Mike Boyle served with the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife, Bureau of Law Enforcement, and has been an active firearms instructor for more than 30 years. He has been an assistant police academy director and remains active as an academy rangemaster and instructor. Mike has served on the Board of Directors of the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors (IALEFI) since 1996. He is the architect and coordinator of IALEFI’s Master Instructor Development Program.